How the biz can drive you crazy

Every so often I come across an article about the publishing business that makes me want to stand up and shout, “Yes! At last someone tells it like it really is!” That’s the reaction I had when I recently came across a piece published in the December ’08 issue of Romance Writers Report. “The Tao of Publishing — Why Publishing is Making You Crazy and What You Can Do About it” was written by literary agent Steven Axelrod and writer Julie Anne Long. I know many people don’t receive Romance Writers Report (you automatically get it if you belong to Romance Writers of America) so you may not have access to the article. I wish I could post it here in its entirety, but that would be copyright infringement. So I’ll just try to summarize it — and tell you why I think it’s such a brilliant piece of analysis.

UPDATE: the article is now posted online here.

The article cites a study by a sociology professor who discovered that because humans need to connect socially with each other, we are sometimes attracted to things simply because other people like them. “We need common experiences — indeed we seek them out… One consequence of this is that if we really like things simply because other people like them, predicting which cultural products will succeed commercially (and which will fail) becomes impossible.” Regardless of the actual quality of the product, people tend to like what other people like. Popularity leads to even bigger popularity. “This means that if one object happens to be slightly more popular than another at just the right point, it will tend to become more popular still.”

Which explains why “some wonderful books failed to find an audience and why some second-rate books succeeded.”

And this can drive publishing professionals crazy, because no matter how good a book may be, no matter how much effort a publisher puts behind that book, it can still fail. Success involves many random factors that are completely out of our control.

“Too many times I”ve seen authors undertake expensive and time-consuming promotions that come to naught,” Axelrod writes. “Their justification for doing it is, well, author X did this and she hit the New York Times list. But as we now know, the odds are even that random factors were at play. We have no way of knowing if the promotion really did contribute to author X’s success or if it had nothing to do with author X’s success at all.”

Axelrod goes on to say: “I believe that the overwhelming majority of highly successful writers were anything but. It took these writers years to succeed, and when it happened, it was frequently under a different name or in a different genre from where they started. Believe in yourself, but remember that randomness plays a large role in your career as well.”

What he says is absolutely true of my own career. I was no overnight success. I started off writing in the romance genre, but after nine books, I could see that my career was stuck at a plateau. All my manuscripts were being published, and I had no problems landing contracts, but I’d never be able to send my kids to college on the income. Only after I switched genres and started writing thrillers did I hit the bestseller lists.

Even then, the randomness of the industry flummoxed me. The books I considered my best (and the ones the critics liked as well) weren’t the ones with the strongest sales. Over the years, I’ve watched my sales seesaw, and I can’t explain why some books did well, and others didn’t. Occasionally the explanation seemed obvious. LIFE SUPPORT, for instance, was published the same week that UPS went on strike, and it took weeks for the books to arrive in the stores — by which time LIFE SUPPORT was already considered an “old” release, and never got its full co-op displays. A pretty rational explanation for why it didn’t hit the hardcover bestseller list, right? Its poor sales seemed to be a logical consequence of an unfortunate — and unpredictable– event.

So how do I explain the success of THE SURGEON? It went on sale just before September 11, 2001. In the aftermath of that national trauma, my book tour was canceled, bookstore traffic went dead, and everyone predicted that the sales of high-tension thriller novels would suffer. The public will instead want sweet romance novels, pop psychologists predicted. No one will want to read stories with bloody crimes.

Yet THE SURGEON went on to garner stronger sales than any of my previous titles. Even with the power of world events working against it.

I’ve watched the sales patterns of twelve of my thrillers now. Some of the releases have had full-court media campaigns, with full-page NYT ads. Most of the time I went on book tour. Occasionally, I didn’t. Some books were well-reviewed; some were not. Some books had long pre-pub times, others were rushed into production. Some books gave me a gut feeling that “this one’s going to be huge.” Others didn’t. Was I able to predict which ones would be more successful?

Nope. I couldn’t. And I’ve given up trying to.

In the article, Julie Long writes: “Going through the machinations of trying to predict or control our success does make us feel as though we’re getting somewhere, and gives us that critical illusion of control. (But) the harder we try to make sense of things, the further from the truth we’ll actually get. And again, that way lies craziness.”

Oh, how well do I understand that craziness. I’ve flogged myself with thoughts of, “if only the book had been released a week earlier! If only we’d gone for a blue instead of an orange cover! If only I’d hired an outside publicist! If only, if only, if only…” I’ve tried to explain my bad sales and good sales in terms of marketing strategies I can control. But I’ve come to understand that Action X does not necessarily lead to Result X. All I can do is write the best book I’m capable of and trust my publisher to do its job right.

After that, the book either sinks or swims. And there’s not a hell of a lot I can do to change it.

As Julie Anne Long writes, “We all want to know what works, and do that. The truth is, we can’t ever know for certain what works… Self-promotion, in fact, is another one of those things that make us feel like we can actively control or influence our success. In many ways, it’s more of a ritual than anything that can really impact the velocity of our career growth.”

That ritual can end up obsessing us and taking away precious time away from our writing. It makes us check our Amazon rankings far too often. It compels us to sign every copy of our book in every store within a 500-mile radius. It makes us accept speaking engagements we don’t really feel like agreeing to. It ends up controlling our lives, and draining the joy that made us take up writing in the first place.

It’s taken me over two decades to mellow and adopt the more zenlike attitude that this article advocates. If I’d read it ten years ago, I wouldn’t have been ready to accept the advice. But since then, I’ve come to understand it on my own. And I recognize its wisdom.

I hope others will, too.

In the land of the pharaohs

This may seem as if it has nothing at all to do with writing, but in a way it does. Because everything a writer does, every experience, every conversation, every new fact learned, somehow influences the stories we tell. And so my recent trip to Egypt (my third, over a lifetime) may well end up in a book someday. I don’t know how it will work its way into a story. Perhaps it’ll be a memory of sun glaring on sand, perhaps the smell of the wind over the Nile, but there’s a good chance a detail, however small, will end up in a book.

But for now, it’s enough just to tell you I had a wondrous time there.

My two previous trips to Egypt were unescorted. And, if you’ve been to Egypt, you know how exhausting and frustrating such trips can be. Solo travelers must contend with the heat and the hucksters and all the arcane and unspoken rules that operate in a land where even Herodotus, 2500 years ago, found himself taken in by dishonest tour guides. But this time, my husband and I took the easy way out. We joined a tour.

And what an amazing tour it was. The one compelling reason I signed up for it was this man:

Egyptologist Bob Brier is a man I’ve admired for some time. Known worldwide as “Mr. Mummy,” his lectures on ancient Egypt are among the most popular recordings for The Teaching Company. Some years ago, I listened to all 48 of his lectures and was inspired by his wild enthusiasm for the subject. I read his marvelous book, The Murder of Tutankhamen. When I found out that he and his wife, art historian Pat Remler, were leading this particular tour to Egypt, I immediately signed up.

Am I glad I did.

One of the objects of the trip was to learn to read hieroglyphs. Bob’s lessons were the highlight of every day.

Within a few sessions, we were able to read and write simple sentences, move between past and present tense, and recognize the names of pharaohs in many of the cartouches on the temple walls. It took a lot of drawing practice, but after a few hours my vultures and quail chicks actually started looking like birds. Ancient hieroglyphs may represent a dead language, but that’s what made it so much fun — it was knowledge gained just for the sheer joy of it.

There was a lot of plain old touristy stuff involved, of course. At the temple in Kom Ombo, we stopped to contemplate this amazing wall:

I don’t know if you can see it, but it’s a carving of ancient Egyptian medical instruments. You can see saws and knives and forceps and even a sponge. It’s a reminder of just how medically advanced the ancient Egyptians were, and as a doctor, I was amazed by how modern the instruments looked.

After our week in Egypt, Bob and Pat escorted us back to London, where we shared another amazing day with them, touring the Egyptian collection in the British Museum, and the fabulous Petrie Museum, one of those quiet, out-of-the way gems that has in its collection the oldest garment in existence. The Petrie Museum is open to the public, but it seems just obscure enough that very few people actually find their way to its doors. Quiet and old-fashioned, it actually turned into one of my favorite places, and I can’t wait to go back.

Note: For those who are interested in traveling with Bob Brier, check out the website for Far Horizons. They specialize in cultural and archaeological tours.

Curiosity and the writer

I’ve just returned home from my trip to Egypt and am a bit overwhelmed by all the correspondence that’s piled up. I’ll blog in another day or two.

In the meantime, I invite you to check out my blogpost, which appeared a few days over on Murderati.com.

Off on vacation

I’m packed and ready to leave for Egypt. No blogging or email access for the next few weeks — hope to have some photos to share when I return!

Travels with Fred

You’re looking at my constant companion for the past few weeks. I acquired him from a company that furnishes props for horror filmmakers. “Fred the head” has gone everywhere with me on book tour, traveling placidly in a little cardboard box that fits nicely in my carry-on suitcase. He’s practically weightless (being mostly skin and hair) and because he has no bones, he zips through airport x-ray screening without causing any raised eyebrows. I bring him to bookstores, where he’s inevitably the hit of my presentation. I don’t immediately reveal him; I leave him hidden in his box until just the right moment, when I announce that I’ve brought along a tsantsa.

Then I whip him out. And everyone stares, appalled.

No, he’s not real. Even I would be freaked out by a real shrunken human head. He’s a replica made of goat skin and hair, and a pretty good one. His “scalp” has stitches up the back of his scalp (as a real tsantsa would have). His “eyelids” are stitched shut, and he has fake eyelashes. He’s the perfect show-and-tell specimen, and I use him to explain how to shrink a human head.

He also smells … interesting. Once, while giving a talk at a bookstore that had a cat wandering about, I looked down to find the cat clawing at the box, trying to get at Fred. I guess the aroma of dried goat skin is as irresistable as catnip.

It’s not easy keeping a bookstore crowd interested. Some authors like to read from their stories. Others sing songs or field questions from the audience. What I love to do is give a little lecture on some obscure and creepy topic. With BONE GARDEN, it was the history of childbed fever. With THE KEEPSAKE, it was the art of mummification and head-shrinking. Which is where Fred came in.

Next February, Fred will become a trans-Atlantic traveler. Yep, I’m bringing him on my UK tour. He’s looking forward to it.

Do your looks matter as an author?

Just got home from book tour and am frantically packing for my trip to Egypt. I’ll try to blog here before I leave — but in the meantime, check out my latest blogpost at Murderati.com.

More later…